Georgia Drifts Away from the West

Saakashvili Independence Day

The West is losing Georgia, and the West has only itself to blame.  Since the April 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, at which the Alliance declared that Georgia (and Ukraine) would become a member, Europe and the United States have done almost nothing to more fully integrate the Caucasian country into the transatlantic community.  The West – NATO, the United States, the EU, and individual European countries – does so at its own risk, as by alienating and estranging Georgia, it dangerously undermines European security.  Having been consistently snubbed by the EU and US, Georgia has progressively been losing its faith in joining the transatlantic community , and most recently has reached out to Iran.

In mid-May, government officials from Tbilisi and Teheran announced a series of initiatives aimed at bringing Georgia and Iran closer together.  Most notably, Georgia announced a visa waiver program for Iranian visitors.  In addition, Iran promised to help fund a large-scale hydropower plant in Georgia, and Tbilisi has asked for Iranian financial aid in wind power as well.  Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki may come to Georgia this June in order to negotiate the details of the joint cooperation. It is easy to exaggerate these claims, and some media outlets did by reporting that President Mikhail? Saakashvili invited his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit Tbilisi.  Saakashvili denied these claims publically, but not until his spokespeople confused journalists with neither confirmations nor denials about this supposed visit.  Instead, Georgia’s Prime Minister Nika Gilauri may pay an official visit to Iran to discuss economic ties between the two countries, although there are emerging reports that even this trip may not take place. 

In an effort to extenuate the Georgian-Iranian partnership, Tbilisi was quick to declare that the relationship with Teheran would be strictly economic, and would not extend into closer political or foreign policy cooperation.  Moreover, Georgia claims that it has discussed its strategy for Iran with the United States, and thus no one should be surprised by this sudden outreach.   

Yet, Saakashvili’s diplomacy seems very much out of step with the United States, having, endorsed the Turkish-Brazilian plan for reprocessing of Iranian nuclear fuel. As the United States was building support in the United Nations Security Council for sanctions on Iran, President Saakashvili said on May 18, “This is a real diplomatic breakthrough and a great diplomatic victory for Iran, Europe, the United States and the world and for the entire region, for Turkey and of course for Georgia… This is peace for Iran and for the entire region and for Georgia as well.”  Georgia’s sudden, unilateral turn to closer relations with a global pariah is troubling, and should be a wake-up call for Western countries, which have been ignoring and disregarding Tbilisi since its war with Moscow. 

When compared with its post-Soviet peers (excluding the Baltic States), Georgia has very much been a model pupil in the former Soviet Union (FSU) space.  Corruption in politics and the economy remains endemic and democracy is still precarious, but elections take place, press freedom is strong, and economic reforms have created a liberal and free market in Georgia.  The recent local and mayoral elections underscored both how far Georgia has come and how far it still had to go in creating a democratic society consistent with European standards.  Nonetheless, since the Rose Revolution, the Georgians and their government recognized that successful development of their country must come from accepting Euro-Atlantic norms and values, and for now have rejected the autocratic models emanating from Russia and Eurasia.  In fact, more than this, Georgians explicitly expressed a desire to join the transatlantic community and its major institutions. 

The government declared its intent to join both NATO and the EU and made reforms to gain membership in these two institutions a top national strategy goal.  This yearning to be considered a part of Europe was not just a top-down political elite project, either.  The Georgian population considers itself fully European, and overwhelmingly supports its country’s efforts to join both organizations.  As late as May 2010, 62 percent of Georgians supported Tbilisi’s entry into NATO, though this was significantly lower than the 77 percent who voted in favor of Georgia joining the alliance in 2008 in a non-binding referendum.  The decrease in Georgians’ fervor for joining Europe is a reflection of the Euro-Atlantic countries’ disregard of Tbilisi’s overtures. 

Certain NATO members – mainly Germany and France – successfully kept the Alliance from giving Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the April 2008 Summit in Bucharest, and they did so partially in deference to Moscow’s anger at the prospect of Tbilisi’s entry into NATO.  Disconcertingly for Georgia and European security at large, the Alliance was then unable to prevent or seriously affect the ensuing August war between Tbilisi and Moscow.  Moreover, as Senator Richard Lugar noted in a report to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the aftermath of the war, even the United States stopped offering Georgia significant defense aid, leaving it vulnerable in Russia’s shadow. 

Georgia’s relations with the European Union have been more ambiguous, but just as demoralizing for Tbilisi.  While the EU did recently open talks with it, Armenia, and Azerbaijan on negotiating a future Association Agreement, this does not envision possible future membership.  Worse, Georgia and the Caucasus have certainly dropped in importance for Brussels policy-makers in general.  EU head of foreign policy Lady Catherine Ashton recently proposed abolishing the high profile position of EU special representative to the South Caucasus (as well as the one to Moldova), and replacing him with a mid-level bureaucrat responsible for the region.  Georgia views the move with anxiety and trepidation, concerned that it signals the EU’s waning interest in Europe’s eastern fringes. 

Mikheil Saakashvili complained in a July 2009 interview that Georgia’s hopes for joining NATO and the EU “were almost dead.”  Plenty of evidence suggests that he was not exaggerating.  In Brussels and Washington, other global and domestic pressures have taken NATO and EU enlargement largely off of the agenda.  Moscow’s continued hostility toward the North Atlantic Alliance’s perceived eastern “encroachment” – exemplified by the 2008 Russian-Georgian War – makes Georgia’s membership in the near-term unfeasible lest it spark a NATO-Russia military confrontation.  Finally, Georgia’s own system of government still leaves much to be desired in terms of consolidated liberal democratic institutions, though it is unlikely to move forward as resolutely without some tangible prospect of future European integration. 

Despite these challenges, the transatlantic community cannot write off Georgia, however.  Stability and prosperity in Tbilisi and the rest of the Caucasus is vital to security in the strategic wider Black Sea region.  Moreover, as a Southern Corridor transit country, Georgia remains an important linchpin in Europe’s energy security needs.  Furthermore, Georgia’s position as a staunch ally of the West rests precariously on Europe’s and America’s willingness to prevent Tbilisi from emulating its Eurasian neighbors or falling back into Moscow’s orbit.  The Georgians crave entry into Europe and how the West responds will determine whether Georgia becomes a transatlantic success story, or yet another example of the West’s consent to Russia’s neo-imperial vision of its ‘near-abroad.’

Matthew Czekaj is a research associate with the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program. Photo credit: David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters.

Editor’s note: This is an edited version of a previous copy of this article, which contained a factual error.


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